After wasted decade, Mayoral candidates need town centre plan

Times are tough: what do the Mayoral candidates offer as solutions for the town centre?

How do you replace a long-promised but never delivered £1.4bn redevelopment in the town centre? In his first column of 2022, ANDREW FISHER (left) offers some suggestions

Croydon’s town centre has suffered a torrid time of late. The biggest queues at Centrale over the Christmas shopping period were for booster jabs.

It has been clear for 20 years that there is a shift from the high street to online for the retail sector, and the pandemic and its lockdowns have simply accelerated that process.

So for Croydon, things could have been worse. Imagine if Westfield had actually demolished much of central Croydon’s high street for their long-promised £1.4billion regeneration scheme – it would still be a pile of rubble now! That was certainly the experience of the people of Bradford, where Westfield left their demolished site in the Yorkshire city as just a vast gaping hole for 10 years.

Wastefield: Croydon may have dodged a bullet over their promised £1.4bn Westfield development

With the Croydon Westfield pipedream now a thing of the past, now is time to look for real solutions for our town centre.

Town centres need people to visit them, and if retail isn’t it, or at least isn’t enough to sustain a town centre on the current scale, then there needs to be some big thinking about what purpose our town centre serves over the next few decades.

If retail is shifting online, then some of the retail jobs will be replaced by warehouse workers and delivery drivers. But what do you do with historic retail areas?

Educational expansion: bringing students to town centre, is one way to revive its fortunes

One option in London boroughs like Croydon – where there is an urgent need for more housing – might be to convert some of the disused retail areas at the margins into council housing, where that could be done to a decent standard and with green spaces built into the designs, too.

Another option might be for Croydon Council to encourage and promote the expansion of Croydon College and the South Bank University campus, and use further and higher education to drive regeneration around the town centre. Thousands of students flocking into the town centre, perhaps even with some student halls included in the accommodation mix, would create a hub of potential customers.

Other options would be to shift the balance from retail to leisure. Whether that’s cinemas, swimming pools, sports centres, parks or bowling alleys, bars and restaurants, it would be much better to have attractions in a town centre served by great public transport links, rather than in out-of-town locations that rely on providing huge car parking and creating a large carbon footprint.

The political and the economic environments are tough. We know about the state of the council’s finances and the depletion of staff capacity. In 2022, businesses are unlikely to be investing heavily when economists are forecasting a severe squeeze on living standards – that is expected to hit both retail and leisure sectors – even without a pandemic to contend with.

Torsten Bell, of the independent think tank the Resolution Foundation, says 2022 will be a year of inflation rising and pay growth slowing. Inflation is driven by soaring energy bills – with rises of up £600 (nearly 50 per cent) expected in April, just as tax rises hit incomes, too.

‘Modern-day Nostradamus’: Andrew Fisher predicted problems with Westfield in 2014

The energy bill rise alone will take somewhere between £30million to £50million from Croydon households.

And the continuing impact of covid on the national and local economies is impossible to predict with any real certainty.

With the number of positive tests for covid at record levels, thousands of people in Croydon spent the run-up to Christmas – and the usually lucrative post-Christmas sales period – self-isolating and unable to get to the shops even if they wanted to.

The latest figures show Croydon has the highest number of cases of any London borough and the third-highest case rate – more than 1 in 50 of us currently has covid – which means at least 2per cent self-isolating, and therefore not visiting the town centre for retail or leisure.

The pandemic has shifted our shopping habits – more of us have got used to shopping online and do so more regularly and with more confidence. What was a necessity during lockdown and in personal cases of self-isolation has become a new normal.

In the run-up to Christmas, 30 per cent of retail sales were conducted online.

At the same point in 2019, before covid-19, that figure was around 20 per cent. And that had increased from 12 per cent in late 2013, when the Croydon Westfield deal was being negotiated between the landowners, the Whitgift Foundation, Conservative MP Gavin Barwell and London’s then Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Eight years ago, the then Conservative-run council and Barwell were enthusiastic cheerleaders for the marvellous bounty that the Westfield development would bring.

In 2014 – after the retail sector had already experienced a decade of decline and shift to online – some modern-day Nostradamus wrote on this very website: “Today, Croydon’s grand economic strategy is essentially knocking down a shopping centre and building another one”.

Peerless behaviour: Gavin Barwell hurled insults at any who dared criticise the scheme from Tory donors Westfield

And they asked “at a time of weak consumer demand, with retail sales shifting from the High Street to the internet, is a new shopping centre really the best Croydon can do?”

You can put your praise for such foresight in the comments section below.

But really, all you had to do, even then, was look at the economic climate, shopping trends and Westfield’s own record (in Bradford, they started demolition work in 2004, promising completion by 2007; a scaled-down shopping centre was not completed until late 2015) to realise that what was being proposed from Croydon was far from the guaranteed success that successive, Conservative and Labour, council administrations professed it to be.

Yet for some, the Croydon Westfield pipedream was above any criticism.

Oh dear: this is the leaflet that Croydon’s largest landowners distributed in 2012

In March 2014, Croydon Central MP Barwell chastised opposition Labour councillor Timothy Godfrey for flagging up concerns about Westfield’s conduct in Bradford, tweeting “You re-tweeted a tweet critical of Westfield in Bradford. Why?”

The then Tory MP followed this with, “There’s a company planning to invest [more than] £1billion in our town creating thousands of jobs and you’re criticising them”, he wrote, adding the hashtag “#idiot”.

It’s the sort of civilised behaviour that gets you a seat in the House of Lords, apparently.

In the end, Westfield scarpered without investing much in Croydon, with the only job created seemingly for their favoured chief exec in Katharine Street.

In the current economic climate, the state of Croydon’s town centre may be an issue that’s easier to avoid, but that makes it all the more important that the candidates for Croydon Mayor are pressed on this issue in the run-up to May’s elections.

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12 Responses to After wasted decade, Mayoral candidates need town centre plan

  1. Lots of good ideas here and worthy of a wider debate.

    I’d be wary of any black box activities like the awful family leisure offer currently in the Central building – these occupiers kill towns and turn their back on the street and public realm and create an inward looking activity that does not engage outwards – all you get are blank walls and fire escape doors.

    Croydon Council should be trying to create a more innovative uses in the town centre – where research meets technical innovation meets industry meets education and they all mix – new starter businesses, incubator hubs, conference facilities, shared office accommodation, innovation studios, We-work offices, technology exhibition spaces, invite in the big technical / computer / software companies to have a stake, tie in a university and a government department and with this will come financial backer organisations and investors – it self-grows. Then comes the marketing companies, the communications companies, the restaurants, cafes, bars and a new kind of retail and importantly, culture. It’s all to play for; the potential opportunity is huge for Croydon to be London’s new Technology and Information hub

    First thing is you need a leader with vision. Something Newman never had but perhaps our new Mayor will??

    • Chris Flynn says:

      Makes sense. If there was 1 single thing that was big enough to fill the town centre, it’d probably be obvious what it was. The answer is probably a mixture of things, to entice different types of people. Although maybe that is a bit ‘grey’ for today’s extreme politics.

    • Angus Hewlett says:

      Broadly agree.

      Croydon’s strength is being by far the closest large town to London that doesn’t suffer from London’s insanely overheated prices – which make it nigh on impossible for businesses outside the financial and professional services sector to operate, and drive the cost of living for people early on in their careers to absurd levels. It has so much potential to be a commercial hub in its own right (as indeed it was until the 00s) – much more so than e.g. Bromley or Sutton, which are little more than retail centres for people who live nearby but commute to central London.

      Birmingham’s BCU campus is interesting to look at as a model of integrating practical university learning with the rest of the town – ivory towers it ain’t. Croydon could be a great place to live for postgrads and new graduates: 15 minutes to central London, apartments that couples on new-grad salaries can actually afford, easy access to the south coast.

      Redeveloping Purley Way together with a Tramlink extension could add to the town’s gravitational pull. More reliable trains late at night would boost the night time economy – daytime services are great, but when they stop for the evening it’s a very long uber ride to get home from zone 1.

      The problem with the family activity centre is less that it’s a black box, more that it’s been done on the cheap. I see absolutely nothing wrong with bringing more leisure activities – swimming pools, climbing walls, gyms, laser quest, bowling – in to the middle of town, but it’s got to be done to a decent standard. Gravity Wandsworth shows how it can be done – hopefully if the current Flip Out proves to have some traction they can reinvest and do it to a better standard.

  2. P Ford says:

    I certainly agree with you Sebastian.

    If I have one but ‘not a minor’ quibble though Andrew, it is that all forms of housing should be considered, not just council housing or university accommodation.

    To live in and around the Town Centre should be possible for people of all income strata, and there should be a deliberate and distinct move away from housing ‘segregation’ e.g. standalone apartment blocks like Saffron Square. We should learn from and adapt the French model. Think Paris (Porte-Maillot; St. Germain-des-Prés, Montparnasse, St.Paul, Bastille area), Neuilly-sur-Seine, Nantes etc. where they elegantly combine housing, business/retail, leisure and education. Where for example, you can enter a building that comprises offices or retail at the front, with apartments at the top, at the rear and across a garden courtyard.

    A regenerated Town Centre with people – all sorts of people – visiting it, but importantly also living in it and not just ‘at the margins’ like the bizarre conversions such as Delta Point, would afford and nurture a thriving and viable town centre… And, who knows, in time this may even afford the waning of the North/South divide that currently persists, and all may become proud of Croydon and to call it home and place of work.

  3. Simon Squires says:

    If the Whitgift Centre is still owned by the Whitgift Foundation, I am sure they will have a big say in matters. They must be looking for a return on the centre to meet obligations or whatever they have planned. Currently I assume they are getting an awful lot of nothing.

    Whilst shopping centres are not the attraction they once were, they can still flourish. Take Bluewater for example. Having been there recently I thought it was excellent, with two huge flagship stores in M&S and John Lewis (both better than the Oxford St versions). What makes it successful? My thought is free parking and accessibility. If Croydon wants a retail destination I would be looking at the Purley Way as this has far more potential.

    Central Croydon is in dire need of help. What is happening now with the development of St Georges Walk? My understanding is that this was being done by a Chinese firm. I heard that this is now on hold and there is no word as to when it might resume. Could we have another half finished building site on our hands? With the issues over Property Developers in China, this could well be another huge dud.

    Buiilding a new shopping centre now just seems to be too expensive for the potential return on investment, hence ever increasing housing added as this offsets the cost. Ultimately I don’t see any other option than demolishing the Whitfgift Centre and buidling more housing. Do we need another couple of thousand tiny high density flats though? Croydon was ranked as the 17th worst town in the UK and it is not a surprise to see. Successive councils have all played their part in driving our great town into the ground.

    • miapawz says:

      Agree on free parking and having a proper town centre; Croydon has no focal point or area for people to meet and socialise – restaurants are scattered. Zizzi was a favorite and it’s gone from the South End. I avoid Croydon town centre for many reasons but the lack of anywhere nice feeling to ‘hang out’ is the main one. I don’t like box park as I’m of an age, but I do like a coffee, a pizza, a lunch, an evening meal (civilised like). There’s nothing for us in Croydon or for the young either.

      Westfied: I think If the council folk and MPs had not argued so much with Westfield on what was proposed to be built we might have had it. They started negotiating nearly a decade ago.

      • Westfield’s indecision had nothing to do with “the council folk” delaying the development. Indeed, they acted with great haste in granting two separate planning applications and pushing through the CPO.

        The delay and dither was all from the multi-nationals, as Hammerson saw their business disintegrate around them, as retailers exited the sector or stopped paying their rents, while ruthless Westfield kept re-doing their sums and finding there would be no profit in a £1.4bn development.

    • Angus Hewlett says:

      Thing with Bluewater is, it has an absolutely massive catchment. Greenwich to Canterbury, more or less. It’s out-of-town and doesn’t really offer much besides shopping and more shopping. Not a town centre, and doesn’t pretend to be. No culture, nobody living there.. yes it’s good for buying stuff but in every other respect it’s pretty grim. Would much rather go to Oxford Street (and maybe stop in at Piccadilly, St James, Soho etc. on the way), or just order online. Then again, I’m not a shopping-as-leisure-activity person.

      Personally I’m in favour of more flats – as long as there’s either the transport capacity to get people to jobs in central, or (much better yet) decent quality local jobs. People living there = money in the local economy.

  4. Lancaster says:

    Sebastian’s enthusiasm is certainly positive…. Simon’s observations about Bluewater insightful.

    I believe a significant issue with Croydon’s retail / consumer challenge is access. When it takes 45mins to navigate past 5-Ways to access central Croydon and over one hour to get from Wallington to Ikea at the weekend, Croydon has zero hope for the future if its aspiration is to be like Bluewater or a retail / social mecca; however much money is thrown at the project.

    While park and ride and public transport are trendy eco ideas; the reality of shopping and the inconvenience, expense and unreliability of public transport means personal transport is necessary for retail therapy / shopping and planning nights out.

    Perhaps the Council can look at traffic / road and parking ‘policies’ !

    Perhaps encouraging and making it easier to access the town center for those who do not live within one a mile of BWH would be a start.

  5. Lewis White says:

    Thankyou Andrew Fisher for a timely and thoughtful article.

    Together with the comments from IC readers, there are bags of ideas here, which need to be considered in depth to allow an attractive and adaptable town centre to be built to renew Croydon. One of the problems –and opportunites– we inherit from any big development like the Whitgift is that, unlike the traditional rest of the town, with hundreds of individual buildings along streets, it was all built at the same time. So the redevelopment will make a big hole, taking several years to re-fill.

    It was around 1966, when we lost a fanstastic, Hogwarts of a building, the old Middle Whitgift School, and its sunny open playing fields and an avenue of lovely trees.

    We got an open air shopping centre — quite exciting at the time, and thronged with people for decades. Plus a couple of tower blocks and a multi storey.

    The loss of heritage buildings, the green open space and trees was a great shame. Today, a more mixed, and contextual development, embdying the good old and the good new– and hopefully, well located and well-designed open spaces like mini urban parks– would probably be developed

    I suppose the Whitgift Centre could be redeveloped in an unadventurous way, but I sincerely hope that we will get a design that creates a really attractive MIX of outdoor and indoor.

    A big problem is that developers with a shopping and office heritage tend to go on working to familiar mall-models with office blocks. But, as the comments above mention, internet shopping has taken away much of the trade. Covid has further killed off tyhe shopping trip urge in many people.

    The shopping “offer” of Croydon has been reduced, partly by the development f the Purley way, where USA style warehouse shops on one or max two storeys are easy to get to by car, with free parking. Those big white goods purchases can so easily be trundled to the car and taken home.

    Q: How attractive is the town centre? What is there to pull in the crowds? How accessible is the town centre? Is the micro-climate and general environment any good ? Is there a cultural offer in the town centre? How appealing is it fior young people?

    A: Not much. Not much. Not much. Not much. Not much. Not much

    I personally would start of by devising a new street network, as there were never streets on the Whitgift site. Or should I say…”new streets and spaces”? Yes, I think that is so.

    With a naturally windy ridge top site (yes, the High Street is on a ridge above the Wandle valley and Old Town), the climate was always quite windy, exacerbated by the 1960’s tower blocks, which made so much of the “modern areas” including the Whitgift and St george’s Walk, and upper George Street and Wellesley Road so VERY windswept.

    To make people feel comfortable, my ideal Croydon will be designed to create a sequence of indoor and outdoor spaces, with fresh air but also shelter, with sunshine, but some shade, and generous greenery in designs that are be essentially modern and urban. One “no buts” key feature is a mix of shops, offices, residential flats but no rabbit hutches, and medium rise buildings oriented thoughtfully to let the sunshine in at all times of day. Some tower blocks too, but located to avoid creating wind tunnels and overshadowing the streets and flats.

    Plus education, as noted in the article by Andrew. Students bring vitality, leading me on to a plea to re-use the old Waterworks Pumping station in Matthews Yard as a concert and meeting venue. If this were part of a combined Croydon College and Brit School, there could be performances — and a superb venue for school events, like a Great hall at a University.

    I would love to see a covered as well as an open air fresh food and veg market.

    I would love to see sunbathing lawns and pop-up fountains for children to enjoy. Maybe we will get a small amount of lawn plus a decent spash zone in the “Fair Field” open space which seems to have been put on the back burner due to certain cash flow isues at the Council.

    So much to wish for– now, who is going to have the vision and tenacity and savvy to get us this thriving and greener renewed Croydon Town Centre?

    And who is going to design and build it ?

  6. Simon Squires says:

    There are some good ideas here, but the fundamental problem with all of them is people need to get paid… i.e. the owners of the site and the ones who build whatever we end up with will want a return on capital.

    Personally I would knock down Whitgift and turn it into housing (a mix of houses and flats). I would try to keep the frontage of North End and have it more like a high street (with the housing behind it). You then focus on Centrale and a much-reduced shopping centre but with some spend to make it easier to move around – lower ground and first floors have never worked because hardly anyone went to them. M&S could easily move into the Debenhams site, or perhaps they’ll relocate to the Purley Way once their store opens there.

    A £1bn+ development just does not work anymore when you want a payback on the capital paid plus a decent yield. Most REITS typically pay a 4-6% net annual yield to investors on top of any capital growth.

    • miapawz says:

      sounds sensible. I still think we need more of a focal point / plaza type area where people could meet. Queens’ gardens are generally full of gentlemen of the road (another chronic problem the need to address homelessness) and other areas are barren. I like your idea of turning Whitgift into housing. As long as we get more Doctors!

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